THE LAST OF US, A No-Spoiler Review of the First 3 Episodes

THE LAST OF US, an HBO Max series is streaming now, but the release of episodes is drip…drip…The third installment arrived on Sunday (1/29/23) and now, like old fashioned tv watching, the audience waits a week, and so on. It’s an interesting choice that some streaming services have made, to hook viewers over a long period and keep them paying the monthly streaming charge. Does it work? I’ll comment more on that in the longer review. 

If you’re a gamer, you probably know that the heart of this story is based on the video game, The Last of Us, an action-adventure survival horror game franchise created by Naughty Dog and Sony Interactive Entertainment. The series is set in a post-apocalyptic United States ravaged by cannibalistic creatures infected by a mutated fungus in the genus Cordyceps. The game is rated R for violence and some sexually explicit scenes. At this point, 3 episodes in, the series is probably between a PG-13 and R rating, for violence. 

For Educators: In biology class, give the gamers among you a treat by validating their hobby and teaching a lesson at the same time. Show the first 2 episodes (that’s all you’ll need) to discuss the nature of a fungus.

Is THE LAST OF US worth watching and perhaps more importantly, would you pay for an HBO subscription for this series alone? I recommend this series, with reservations. Short and long no-spoiler reviews will explain why. 

The Short Review…Yes, watch

  1. If you love end-of-the-world zombie stories, this one has a couple of new twists to love
  2. Cool monsters and fast unlike the mostly ambling creatures in The Walking Dead 
  3. Well casted (also, actors with talent that aren’t in every other show you’ve seen)
  4. If you play this game/love this game…it’s a new and perhaps fun way to interact with the world

The Short Review…Meh…don’t watch, or perhaps it’s too early to tell

  1. Overall and so far, this story feels less compelling than The Walking Dead or even Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, which I just finished reading. You’re better off spending your time reading or watching something else.
  2. Beware of attaching to key characters because the chances of them dying are really high (for many viewers, I realize this is a plus)
  3. In episode 3, spent a lot of time with a couple of characters who seemed peripheral to the heart of the story. If more episodes are like this one, not sure if I’ll want to keep watching
  4. Lastly, this series alone would not warrant paying for an HBO Max subscription. However, overall HBO content for science fiction, fantasy and dystopian viewing is decent. For example, you can stream DUNE Pt 1 and I loved Station Eleven, a mini-series based on the novel. Click to read my review of Station Eleven. Those are just a couple of examples of HBO’s excellent content. 

The Longer Review

The Last of Us game in numerous iterations, has received critical acclaim and has won awards, including several Game of the Year recognitions. As of January 2023, the franchise has sold over 37 million games worldwide. Strong sales and support of the series led to the franchise’s expansion into other media, including a comic book in 2013 and this television adaptation. So…there is a built-in audience for the series, THE LAST OF US.

That’s a good thing for HBO, but from game to screen…has it ever been done well? I’m not an expert on this one, but I can’t think of a really great film or series that emerged from a game. Pretty good or fun shows…like Tomb Raider…those I could cite, but great? I don’t think so. Does anyone want to counter me here? This series has potential to say something new about the post-virus world, or in this case, post-fungus world (not a spoiler by the way…scene 1 of the series shows a scientist surmising about what would happen if a certain type of fungus evolved and could take over the human brain/body.) 

In three episodes, the viewer gets a sense of one post-apocalyptic region in the US, an area around Boston. There is an allusion in episode 1 and 2 to world-wide catastrophe. There is a huge time jump between 1 and 2. The outbreak takes place in 2003 in episode 1. The rest of the series looks like it will take place 20 years later in 2023, with flashbacks to fill in the gaps here and there. The fungus shows up first in Jakarta, Indonesia…but we learn in episode 3 that the fungus probably went global simultaneously because it was in the food supply, in something like flour or sugar. That idea is unique, moveover, the zombies are weird and fast and hard to kill (bullet to the brain seems to do the job, similar to other zombie narratives). The fungus infested monsters are portrayed in a fuller way in episode 2. 

In the era of binge watching, it’s possible a series such as THE LAST OF US will draw in fresh consumers to HBO streaming, but my guess is it won’t. The buzz that drives everyone to want to watch Stranger Things, because of the “event” of binging the entire season and sharing that experience with millions of fans, that is absent from the HBO and other streaming services’ business model. FoMO associated with binge watching fuels the marketing machine for Netflix. Millions are driven to want a subscription. Some buy, maybe thinking they’ll pay for a short time, and wind up staying longer or forever. Others do pay for one month and then quit…which is better for Netflix than those who use or steal a password to get their fix. 

I am feeling a little frustrated by the drip…drip model. I don’t binge all in one day, but I like to watch the same show night after night. I hate waiting a week. It’s probable I will lose interest or get fixated on another show. I can’t be alone on that. So, if you’re a binge watcher and you think you might like this series, you might wanna wait for another couple of months so you’ll have more content. Subscribe to HBOMax in May, an you’ll have a whole lot of Game of Thrones: House of the Dragon and perhaps the first season of THE LAST OF US

DON’T WORRY DARLING, A Film Review

DON’T WORRY DARLING is a feature-length film, streamable on HBO after a limited release in theaters. This film, produced and directed by Olivia Wilde, provides a semi-new twist on an old science fiction trope. I won’t say what that trope is in the short review, however it is likely to be sniffed out by the scifi fan. It’s pretty obvious. Also, as typical with HBO productions, the sex scenes are explicit and emotionally intense. I give it an R rating because of those scenes, otherwise, it might have been a film the whole family could watch and talk about. Ah well…

Harry Styles as Jack. Frances Pugh as Alice

First, the No-Spoiler Short Review

5 Reasons DON’T WORRY DARLING is a fun watch

  1. Gorgeous highly stylized mid-century modern setting
  2. Beautiful actors
  3. The fashion and hair are worth the price of admission
  4. Eerie undertones and mystery that slowly ramp up tension
  5. Semi-cathartic ending

3 Ways DON’T WORRY DARLING missed the mark

  1. I’ve watched and read various versions of highly controlled utopias. The story trajectory of DON’T WORRY DARLING was predictable. Add a few cliches here and there…and its style begins to feel overwrought.
  2. This film tries to make a statement about marriage by catering to a type of male fantasy around men as providers and women as housewives/stay at home wives. It did not match up to others of this story type in complexity or power, like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale
  3. I wasn’t convinced in the characters themselves, that Jack (played by Harry Styles) in particular, would make the choices he makes

Longer Review (beware of spoilers)

DON’T WORRY DARLING showcases the creative vision of director, Olivia Wilde, along with writers/screenwriters Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke and Katie Silberman.

In the film, Olivia Wilde puts to the screen a utopia in a Southern California desert, a place where beautiful couples live in a 1950s-like fantasy world. Think, Leave It to Beaver, but with racy sex.

Traditional roles underpin the community’s existence. The husbands work each weekday. The wives stay home and though some cleaning and cooking is required of them, they otherwise sip cocktails, take ballet lessons, swim, sunbathe and shop. Children are mostly absent with a few exceptions, but the overall picture is one of leisure and luxury. Hardly a problem exists until one of its female members (a secondary character) goes off the rails and displays what the leader of the community deems irrational, mentally disturbed behavior. The film audience knows that this woman’s rants are the beginning of an unravelling.

The main character, Alice (Florence Pugh) witnesses the suicide of the troubled woman, Margaret, someone she had considered a friend. In trying to help Margaret after she both slits her throat and throws herself from a rooftop, Alice is commandeered and quieted into submission by men in red jumpsuits who seem to police the community. After this, she falls under the treatment of the community’s doctor, is offered meds, and given electroshock therapy. The therapy backfires and causes Alice to remember her “real life”. Everything she is experiencing in this utopia is false, a virtual reality that her husband has committed her to, for reasons that were challenging for me to understand. In theory, her husband loves her and wants this ideal utopia for them both, but by the end, he is willing to subdue her himself, forcibly. My best guess is that he was wanting to give his wife a good life but could not in reality. In real life she is a surgeon, so some of the logic breaks down here because I could not figure out (on one viewing) how he was able to afford this virtual reality without his wife working. Possibly, the “work” he is doing each day is something illegal, and his secrecy about it is a trade he makes for a virtual paradise. However, he is basically imprisoning his wife and forcing her into an identity of his making. That is evil and perhaps Wilde is trying to show via hyperbole, how this can sometimes be the case in an actual marriage. However, the lesson feels forced to me as does the story overall.

Despite that, the film did entertain and I enjoyed the setting, clothing and hair, an artistic landscape with a story that almost measured up to the visual style.

Tales of the Walking Dead: EVIE/JOE, A No-Spoiler Review

4 Reasons I recommend EVIE/JOE, The Short Review

EVIE/JOE is first installment of The Walking Dead’s anthology series: Tales of the Walking Dead. Basically all of these tales will be in short-form, focusing on different characters each time, contained in one 45ish minute episode. EVIE/JOE is set in The Walking Dead universe which means there is a lot of gore, so consider this a PG-13 or R-rated flick. It’s not for everyone! You can watch this for free on Amazon Prime and possibly YouTube TV…still figuring that out.

I loved this short, but I love zombie films/stories and maintain a special fondness for The Walking Dead version of a post-zombie reality. Why might you want to watch?

  1. Believable and likeable characters (played by actors, Olivia Munn and Terry Crews)
  2. Well-done shorts like this must be targeted in its “one thing” it tries to do well and this short succeeded in doing that
  3. A familiar world, where context needs not be explained
  4. Decent tension and a surprising twist in the end

The Longer Review

First, I’ll say a little about the short form. There are a few reasons I appreciate shorts like EVIE/JOE. One is that I find it pleasurable to see a story, beginning, middle and end in one sitting. As a kid I loved The Twilight Zone for this reason. Second, the short form forces the story-teller to focus. My family members have heard me complain many times about a number of the more recent Marvel Universe films when there are way too many characters to properly give them all meaningful story arcs with the overall effect feeling flat and superficial (and for me, unsatisfying). There are three characters in this story. Four, if you count the dog. Third, the short form draws in amazing actors who want the chance to play a different/unique character but without the huge commitment of the series actor, who has to put the rest of his/her acting career on hold while the series is ongoing. This was an issue for Andrew Lincoln (Rick Grimes of The Walking Dead).

You could say the same about “guest” directors/writers. One short attracts very interesting directors and writers. I’m assuming some of these artists are fans of TWD universe but see room to add to that universe. Their vision can be surprising and wonderful.

EVIE/JOE begins with Joe, a survivalist living alone with his beloved Doberman. When the story opens, Joe is rewatching a football game. Civilization as we know it disappeared over a year before (see the carefully placed whiteboard in the first scene). Joe lives underground and seems to have enough electricity and food to stay happy and alive, but when his dog becomes lame, he must carry him up to the ground to go the bathroom and eventually, a group of zombies attack. The pup is bitten, dies and is buried by Joe. The subsequent flashes of Joe become increasingly depressing. A new level of suffering has entered into his life. Grief around his dog’s death and the reality that there is no one and nothing to really live for pushes him to venture out of his hole and seek another survivalist, someone he had contacted at a date when communication outside his hole was possible. That is when he meets Evie.

 

Their relationship becomes the focal point and draws out the true characters of them both. Both are lonely. Both are searching. There is a question about whether or not they will trust each other and whether or not they will succeed in finding what they most hope for. Evie is a hippy, who learned how to survive. Joe is a true survivalist. Their banter is funny and revealing.

It’s pleasurable to see a new setting here as well (in regards to The Walking Dead). This is the Upper Midwest, primarily Ohio and Michigan. There is evidence of survivors and evidence of death. The zombies aren’t the primary threat, but they’re around. As the audience learns pretty quickly in The Walking Dead universe, the zombies are way less scary than the hyper-terrified humans. This story is consistent on that front.

Eventually, there is an ultimate choice…choosing sides, choosing to trust or not trust and there is a moment of facing death. EVIE/JOE will not disappoint if this is the humanity you’re looking for.

12 MONKEYS A No-Spoiler Review

My son is visiting Wisconsin and after work, we are alternatingly choosing films to watch together. Two nights ago, we watched a horror flick he chose called Hereditary, which was decent, not awesome, but was made by the same film company that produced Ex Machina(which I loved and realizing now, I have never reviewed this flick on my site…must amend).

Last night, we watched 12 MONKEYS on Amazon Prime for $3.99. This film would probably be rated PG-13 today. No sexual content really, just creepy apocalyptic tension. And wow! This is still an awesome film and has aged well. Today, I asked my GenZ kid…What do you think? Would most GenZers like this film?

He said.

Absolutely. Yes.

It’s been a while since I’ve watched 12 MONKEYS, but given my vague memory of it, I thought…might be worth the time.

One pleasure, as an older film fan, was to remember Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt remarkably in the same film. Not sure it happened in any other, but what Terry Gilliam delivered on the screen between these two, was close to perfection. This is possibly Brad Pitt’s finest acting and if you’re a fan, you’re gonna have to watch. A few images below underlie my point.

 

First, my Short Review: 4 Reasons You Want to Watch 12 MONKEYS

  1. Weird and dystopian tale, echoing Blade Runner in tone and style.
  2. One of Terry Gilliam’s masterpieces
  3. Possibly Brad Pitt’s finest acting
  4. Bruce Willis playing his iconic gritty and misunderstood character
  5. Great storytelling

Just cannot get enough of these scenes, shots of these two iconic men, culture-impacting actors for the last 30 years.

And

The Longer Review

Sometimes when you re-watch a film like 12 MONKEYS, you wonder how it’s gonna age. As an older person, you think (because you have experienced this before), was I impressed because of something slightly superficial and trite, or was this film truly great? With this flick, you need not worry. 12 MONKEYS delivers on so many levels. First, it delivers on weirdness of setting, including its gritty urban reality. My son (25yo), who has watched Blade Runner understood the dystopian aesthetic of this world. He even commented on the similarity. That, in and of itself, makes me feel I am doing my job training up my children. Second, 12 MONKEYS delivers on story. There is a clear protagonist, a vaguely enormous villain (that proves to be more personal in the final scenes) and enough mystery to keep the audience in tension. Finally, there is weirdness and surprise and the best aspects of science fiction where the perspective being put forward from one or two of the characters absolutely blows up the assumptions and values of the audience. And, if nothing else, respect these images…bizarre and gorgeous. Terry Gilliam is a genius.

 

SEVERANCE, A No Spoiler Review

6 Reasons You Want to Watch Severance

Adam Scott as Mark

  1. Two unique settings within a contained, small-story universe. (I will write more about this in the longer review)
  2. Amazing cast. Adam Scott as the stoic lead, Mark, with a supporting cast that includes Patricia Arquette, John Turturro and Christopher Walken
  3. Superb characterization and story-telling. The main character and all of the secondaries are complex, layered and quirky, adding to the slow-building tension
  4. The underlying moral and symbolic truths within the story are not yet fully baked but seem promising.
  5. This show has a slow ramp-up to gripping tension at the climax of this first season
  6. More to watch in the future because this past month, Apple approved a second season.

The Longer Review

SEVERANCE is an Apple+ production, the first season is complete, streamable now and free for subscribers.

Created by Dan Erickson and directed by Ben Stiller, SEVERANCE is not a comedy. It falls into dystopian mystery with a scifi vibe. A futuristic technology at the center of the story, allows those who work at a company called Lumon Industries, to surgically divide their memories between their work and personal lives. Those individuals are called The Severed. Most of the other tech is familiar and not so modern, for example, people still drive cars around the town.

I give this series a PG rating…it’s possible it will warrant a different rating later on, but so far the mystery is more Hitchcock than Ridley Scott. My ratings usually reflect the graphic nature of the show and not the themes which in this case are harrowing for my adult brain. Would kids enjoy the show? Probably not. You won’t see explicit gore, but you will feel tortured for these characters at the center of the story, in part because of their vulnerability, which is childlike. The value in watching it with your teen would be to discuss the ethics that emerge around the tech that is at the heart of the story.

Britt Lower as Helly B

Regarding the setting. There are two primary “worlds” in SEVERANCE that exemplify the two worlds inhabited by the employees of Lumon.

One setting is work, the Lumon Industries office building. It feels familiar upon entering, but creepily weird the deeper in you go. The interior design is sterile, with strangely vacant work spaces and long labyrinth-like hallways. The four employees the audience follows most closely work in a large white room with no windows or access to the outside world. They are forbidden to interact with employees from other areas of the building and spend their days huddled around computers doing a job that the audience sees, but doesn’t really understand. In fact, even these employees don’t fully understand what they do, how they do it and why. It’s described as something they feel. Their work is just one of many aspects of this situation that give rise to a suspicion about Lumon. Most of the workers, including Mark (Adam Scott) submit to the rules of the company. There are a few exceptions and those exceptions give rise to Mark’s suspicion about Lumon.

The second world is Mark’s town. This is a cold, dreary place. It feels like it could be Alaska or Canada and is probably unfamiliar to most of the audience. The cold and the dark and size of the town adds to the feeling of claustrophobia, something that permeates this story. Darkness also dovetails with the theme of grief. In episode 1, the audience learns that Mark’s reason for severing came about because of the death of his wife. Mark lives in a housing complex owned by Lumon where it becomes clear, he is monitored unbeknownst to him.

Mark tries to reassure Helly B. who ain’t havn’t none of it

My recommendation to watch SEVERANCE comes with the caveat that I’m still not sure where the story is going. I have viewed the first season and loved every episode. Not everyone enjoys a slow build to a gripping climax, but I do when it’s done well and SEVERANCE does it well. So, if you’re tempted to stop after episode 1 or 2, don’t. The tension ratchets up and up and mysteries become creepier as the conspiracy is partially unveiled.

In my next post, I hope to discuss summer reading which will include:

Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD

 

 

 

 

 

THE BATMAN, God and Justice. Warning: So Many Spoilers

Last night I had the privilege of watching Matt Reeve’s THE BATMAN. I enjoyed the film, though it was tough to watch, a tense experience. Graphic violence is implied more than shown, but evil and darkness are palpable in every scene. Not that the film isn’t a beautifully crafted story…it is, but the narrative, the special effects and dingy, but stylized setting of Gotham give evidence of evil in every frame. It’s pouring rain and night during most of THE BATMAN and of those scenes shot in the day, skies are gray.

Of course, this is a familiar setting for our comic book hero, the Dark Knight, but what is less familiar is the tone of utter hopelessness associated with that darkness. Violence plagues the city of Bruce Wayne. In the opening sequence, it is Halloween night and masked hoodlums run wild across Gotham causing mayhem, and at one point a gang of them threaten an Asian American man in a subway station, hitting too close to home for many of us. Halloween is also the night the Riddler commits his first murder.

 

The brutality of humanity is on display in THE BATMAN, begging the question: When is a society so corrupt, so evil, so far gone, there is no hope of renewal and it must be destroyed? This film earned a PG-13 rating. It’s possible a mature teen could watch this and grapple with the question posed above (and elaborated on at the end of this review). It’s a hard question, but one that pops up in stories across our society because it is true.

Batman versus the Riddler draws out themes of righteousness and justice. In certain respects, both men are the same. Both are trying to root out corruption, Both are straining toward a just society. Batman roots out injustice by defending the good guys and working within the system. Though outside the formal police force, his link to Lt. Gordon cannot be denied, nor can anyone doubt his insider status as Bruce Wayne, the orphaned son of a beloved city father. The Riddler however, also an orphan, stands on the outside. He roots out evil by exposing it, by punishing via execution and making a public example of those who have betrayed justice. The Riddler’s first murder is the mayor of the city and subsequently other politicians and law enforcement, those caretakers of Gotham who have made their beds with the mob. Because of these assassinations and the attention he draws to corruption, Batman along with the audience are forced to focus on what is a massively broken system at the highest levels of the city.

The audience wonders whether ANY politicians or police are clean in Gotham, and can such evil be undone when the gatekeepers of justice have become those who perpetrate injustice? The Riddler sees no way out but total destruction.

On the narrative journey, Batman faces truths about his own father. The idealism with which he has viewed his parentage is shattered, evoking for me the psalmist’s words from Psalm 14, text lifted by the Apostle Paul and placed in his letter to the Romans.

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
    They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
    there is none who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man,
    to see if there are any who understand,
    who seek after God.

They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
    there is none who does good,
    not even one.

Why do I include this? In the film, I think Reeves is trying to make a theological point. I bend toward theological rather than philosophical because the powerful reality (loaded imagery) at the end of the film is a flood…as in Noah and the Biblical account of the destruction of evil.

In THE BATMAN, the Riddler has set up bombs that line the seawall on Gotham’s perimeter. The Riddler has determined that Gotham is irredeemable. Gotham must die, drown or be cleansed of its evil if the water imagery is to be understood. Only then will it be reborn. A flood to destroy evil? This is as old a tale as humanity, understood within Judaism, Islam and Christianity as that time in the past when society was so broken, nearly every living thing had to be destroyed in order for evil to be rooted out. The Riddler sets himself up as God and judge. He determines that Gotham is a total loss. Total destruction is the ONLY remedy.

Batman represents another side of this argument. Don’t miss the fact that Selina (the Catwoman character wonderfully portrayed by Zöe Kravitz), tries to coax Batman to remove himself permanently from Gotham. I can’t recall her final words to Batman precisely, but they were something like…staying here and trying to save Gotham will kill you.

That comment is an homage to a redemptive sacrifice and Batman as Christ figure…sort of…The audience already knows how much life has been sapped out of the young Bruce Wayne because of his mission to avenge his father but also to help Gotham. Batman’s motives are often mixed here. Interestingly, this Batman, the Reeves’ Batman grows. He realizes that vengeance is not the full story of how he must respond to evil. To truly honor his dead father and mother, he must do more. He must minister good to the people of Gotham. Two images of Batman in the final scenes make my point. One is him diving into the abyss, lighting his flare and leading innocent people by hand, out of the flood, out of judgment. The other is him helping a wounded girl on a stretcher and holding her hand as she seeks his assurance and is flown away to safety, to healing. Why the hand? There is something about connection to humanity with the touch, a touch that is gentle, not violent.

The Russia Ukrainian War is raging as I write. Yesterday, Russian planes targeted a bomb shelter in Mariupol, a place holding hundreds of children and women. On the ground on either side of this structure, the Ukrainians had written in Russian the words “children” in very large script, large enough to see from the air. How do we as a society grapple with such evil and the destruction of so many innocents? (The number of dead is still undetermined…I will correct this when the fog of war has dissipated.)

Update: on March 25, it was believe that 300 had died in the bombing. In early May, after a thorough AP investigation, it was revealed that 600 likely died in Mariupol theater airstrike. 

 

 

So, I end with this image, Jesus of Sinai, Pantocrator, an icon from the the 6th century. For Christians of the 6th century, most of whom were illiterate, icons like this were essential to their faith because embedded within each icon are theological truths. For them, looking at an icon was like reading a holy text. With Jesus of Sinai, notice the weird lighting on his face, one darker side and one side lighter. That is intentional. Why? The post-modern viewer might not discern what his face represents but to early Christians, they represent two sides of the creator as God looks out over humanity. If you put up your hand and cover one side of the Messiah’s face, you see a bright and compassionate mouth and eye. When you cover the other side, you see a darker eye, an angry glare. The iconographer and the theologians of that time understood that both are sides of God and both are legitimate responses to a broken humanity. The story of God as laid out in the Bible is of God grappling daily with a society gone wrong. On one hand, he is merciful and forgiving, on the other, he is vengeful and ready to punish. Current people of faith struggle with that darker view of God but might do well to ponder it. Noah and the flood tell its story as do Jesus and the cross. And here we see the author of the new Batman series exploring both reactions to evil, but favoring mercy in the end.

We live in a complicated world, but some truths/questions find their way into our art, even if that art is embodied by a comic book character.

Kudos to Reeves for attempting something really big in his portrayal of THE BATMAN.

STATION ELEVEN, A No-Spoiler Review

Himesh Patel as Jeeven

Last week, a few members of my family watched all ten episodes of STATION ELEVEN. This HBO Max miniseries is based on a novel by Canadian author, Emily St. John Mandel. 

As a dystopian story, this series pleased all of us, different generations and genders. I rate it PG or PG13. The topic is challenging, but the people in STATION ELEVEN are not vile or overly violent…not much gore or explicit sexual content to worry parents…however, the subject matter is sophisticated, a web of relationships. It’s family-friendly with mature teens and if your kid is a drama-geek, they will LOVE this show. 

First, My Short Review: 6 Reasons I recommend STATION ELEVEN

  1. The storyteller uses a familiar trope, a world destroyed by a deadly and contagious flu, but delivers an unexpected cast of characters, as well as a post apocalyptic vision of hope
  2. The angle on “life-after-the-fall-of-civilization” captures something both historic and literary in how human beings find meaning in the broken world they inhabit
  3. The characters shine and fail, change and surprise
  4. A fun cast as ethnically diverse as it comes, and without stereotyping
  5. The city of Chicago or the wilds around Lake Michigan are featured in just about every episode…and that felt refreshing. Granted, I now live in the Upper Midwest, but new settings other than NY and LA are a welcome television treat
  6. STATION ELEVEN is self contained as a miniseries. Watch all 10 episodes and you have a complete experience…I like that.

Mackenzie Davis as Adult Kirsten

The Longer Review

STATION ELEVEN, the miniseries, is based on a novel I have not read. One scifi-reader friend told me he found that novel difficult to “get into” as a book. He felt impatient with it, complaining how it took too long to get to the dystopian world scenario. He was bored by all of the setup and character development that took place before the prime action. That feedback makes me curious to read the novel and then analyze how Peter Sommerville’s screenplay adaptation made adjustments because I did not feel this while watching STATION ELEVEN. The first episode features the unraveling of the world and the tensions inherent in societal breakdown. It focuses on two main characters: Kirsten and Jeeven, a young actress and the man who winds up becoming her caretaker. The subsequent episodes put forward backstory that help build the world and the complex web of relationships. But…I cannot say that the initial story in episode 1 bored me in any way. 

Following a traumatic event at a Chicago theater performance of King Lear, Jeeven (an audience member at the theater) is warned by his sister, a doctor on the front lines of the flu pandemic, to get to a market, buy food and make his way to their brother’s high rise apartment. Kirsten, who is a young actress in the play, tags along with him. Jeeven tries to take her home but is unable to locate her parents, so he takes her with him to a market and buys six grocery carts full of food. Together, they push those carts to Frank’s apartment complex, load them on the utility elevator and end up safe with Frank (for a while) as the rest of society crumbles around them. Technology fails, little by little, including their electricity. There is little contact with the outside world. Kirsten entertains herself by disappearing into the world of a graphic novel called Station Eleven. She begins to write a play based on the novel…a book written by Miranda Carroll (Danielle Deadwyler) the ex-wife of Kirsten’s acting mentor, Arthur Leander (played by Gael García Bernal). Leander is a key character in the threads of this story, despite the fact that he is one who collapses and dies on stage while playing Lear in the first minutes of the series.

Jeeven, Frank and Kirsten do not fall to the flu. They stay safe and relatively well-fed in the apartment despite freezing temperatures. However, their haven doesn’t last forever and eventually, the author exploits this trope; the survivors must leave their haven and brave the outside world.

Matilda Lawler plays the Young Kirsten

In this next section of the story, Kirsten finds her way to a shakespearean acting troupe. They become her new family. The drama troupe travels around Lake Michigan in the warmer months, performing among other plays, Hamlet. This is one of the surprising twists in the post-pandemic dystopia, to put forward the idea that the arts will continue and be celebrated by many despite how raw life has become for survivors. You will have to watch to find out what happens to Jeeven and Frank. The two brothers are wonderful characters…memorable and complicated.

There is another storyline that enters the series at this point, still somewhat connected relationally and geographically. It’s a surprise, but not an unwelcome one and adds to much of the backstory. Still, the audience does not know how this new storyline will connect to Kirsten’s. It does and it did not disappoint me.

What is woven through STATION ELEVEN is how the connective tissue of our friendships and relationships emerge even in a time of trauma and loss. The storyteller takes us to a place that might seem contrived, yet captures a potential truth, reminding the audience that connections matter and that the truths underlying relationships, like those put on the stage by William Shakespeare, are universal and relevant (especially relevant) to the human experience post pandemic. 

 

 

SPACE SWEEPERS, A No Spoiler Review

What to expect when watching SPACE SWEEPERS…Great storytelling, compelling characters and a science fiction setting that evokes the best of a well-produced space opera. This film is free on Netflix. I rate it PG-13 for some violence, but it’s a bit like Star Wars type violence. Not a lot of blood, but definitely carnage.

5 Reason to Watch Space Sweepers, The Short Review

  1. characters, they’re funny, quirky and smart…They reminded me of many beloved STAR WARS characters
  2. Special effects, on par with cinematic space opera’s like Star Wars
  3. Family friendly, nothing offensive for parents trying to figure out what to show their kids
  4. Excellent space battles
  5. An ultimate choice for the main character(s) that packs an emotional punch

The Longer Review

This film assumes a space opera vibe and so reminded me of Star Wars, yet felt original. The pacing of this screenplay gave exactly the right amount of info while embedding a few nuggets that made me go back a rewatch portions. That was rewarding and I loved the heartbeat of the story’s core…the transformation of a rogue…think of Han Solo and his journey.

Not that this story only bleeds a happy ending. There is a tragic trade that takes place, a brutal choice for the main character. However, the overall adventure ranked above my expectations. When I’m streaming something online like this, I’m not expecting brilliance, but when it’s Korean made, I am coming to expect top-notch production. The Korean film industry is doing something right by focusing on great storytelling and upping the game at every turn when it comes to investing in the visual feast. SPACE SWEEPERS is no exception.

To note: The villain in SPACE SWEEPERS reminded me (visually) of Jack Dorsey, former Twitter CEO, former CEO as of today, November 30, 2021. I wonder if the film maker has/had a bone to pick with Twitter.

I will continue to seek out, watch and review Korean-produced scifi/horror/speculative fiction because in the last 2 years or more, the flow of great content is undeniable. For more Korean-productions that I’ve reviewed, see:

KINGDOM, A Review of a Korean-Made Masterpiece

SQUID GAME, A Review without Spoilers

TRAIN TO BUSAN, A No Spoiler Review

 

SQUID GAME, A Review without Spoilers

Netflix has done it again. It has found another international gem, this one created by South Korean writer/director, Hwang Dong-hyuk.

I had barely heard of SQUID GAME until about a week ago, but now the buzz is everywhere. If you’re like me, you’re wondering…Why all the hype about this Korean dystopian series?

So, last night, I watched the 1st of the 9 episodes and love what is being set up. This episode features a giant robotic girl that rules over a game of Red Light Green Light, also the episode’s title.

Here’s what I can say about the opening.

  1. An introduction to a variety of well-drawn characters
  2. Especially, the main character, Seong Gi-hun played by Lee Jung-Jae, is a sympathetic hero, a financially desperate divorcee with a gambling problem living with his mother
  3. The story draws together hundreds of below average types or “losers” to compete with one another for an extraordinary financial prize. (Losers is the word used by the creator and he makes great pains to show the audience his characters’ failings).
  4. A creepy robot child with roving eyes that shoot bullets. Tis the stuff of nightmares.

Seong as a child

SQUID GAMES would probably receive a PG-13 or maybe even an R rating for violence. I am watching the dubbed version. The dubbing hasn’t bothered me.

Update: After watching all of it, this series receives an R rating for sure and I don’t think it appropriate for teens. I don’t think the educational value is worth forcing a group to watch this. Many would not be able to tolerate the violence.

There is a dystopian flavor to the story and the world, but its reality is not so hard to believe. What I mean by that is that the game world is not fantastical, nor is it futuristic. This game could be happening today on an island somewhere. The audience does get a shot of the island in episode 1, as well as the back of the billionaire maniacal overlord, who watches via screen as the contestants compete and try to stay alive.

Seong, living with Mom

Creator, Hwang, worked for ten years to get SQUID GAME made. The traditional studios wouldn’t touch it, but alternative streaming is proving again, that fresh stories are out there, often outside the Hollywood bubble. Cheers to Netflix in particular for curating and promoting dramas and comedies we would never otherwise see.

Click on the links below for more of my reviews of “outside the Hollywood bubble” stories that deliver. The first two are also Korean-made

 

 

KINGDOM, A Review of a Korean-Made Masterpiece

TRAIN TO BUSAN, A No Spoiler Review

Review of THE RAIN, Season 1

Don’t Miss the German-made Television Series, DARK. My No Spoiler Review

 

 

 

 

A QUIET PLACE II, A No-Spoiler Review

Worthy of a trip to the movie theater. I say yes!

A QUIET PLACE II was the first film I watched in a theater after receiving the COVID vaccine. It was a joyous occasion on many levels and worth a trip to the theater. The suspense and scare moments are best viewed when in a large, dark room, alongside a bunch of others who will scream in unison with you. We ventured into a theater in Madison, Wisconsin last night, our mask mandate having been lifted the day before. (Dane County has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country).

Here are 5 reasons this film is worth the price of the ticket:

  1. This is true scifi (in the spirit of Ridley Scott’s Alien, AKA monster versus human)
  2. The storytelling is intimate in the best possible way, focusing on one family scrambling to survive in a nearly impossible world
  3. Jump out of your seat moments, but without the extreme gore often found in the horror genre
  4. A longer story arc that builds tension and keeps the audience longing for more
  5. A dynamic deaf actress who plays a deaf character. An amazing role and an amazing performance by Millicent Simmonds

A QUIET PLACE II is rated PG-13. Mature teens could handle this if they like horror. Again…this is not gory horror, but it will likely give little tykes nightmares.

I must say, the group of us were giddy and joyful to be walking into the theater again after so many months of Netflix and Amazon Prime and Disney Plus, etc, etc, viewing by ourselves in our little hovels. The theater felt glorious and expansive.

Some economists ponder whether or not the movie theater will die as a result of our streaming habits (already in process before Covid). If last night is any indication, I would say no. Some films need to be viewed in community, and in a massive, dark space.

A QUIET PLACE II did not disappoint.

All of us in our party had see the first installment. All of us had been pleasantly surprised with the quality of the story in that first film. Always suspecting the sequel will be lame, we didn’t venture into the theaters until we heard from critics and viewers that this second film was both consistent with the vibe of the first (did not lose its heart) yet deepened the overall tension. A third installment is being shot as I write.

I highly recommend you view the first film before going to the second. Here is my review of A QUIET PLACE

You can rent this first film on Amazon Prime for $3.99.

After which I highly recommend you view the second film and be prepared for a few jump-out-of-your-seat moments and a wonderful theater experience overall.